Example of 1900 Alabama Backwoods Justice
ASHS Column for July 20, 2006
I get an inspiration occasionally to
reread the letters from Mr. Hauss
that we have in our possession.
The letters were found in a ledger I
providentially discovered while helping
Mr. Charlie Lowrey take down the old
office and post office building, way
back in ’67 (that’s NINETEEN 67).
The letters were to various
stockholders and upper management
of The Alger-Sullivan Lumber
Company (Hauss insisted that "The"
be capitalized when used as part
of the company name). Most of
the letters were to General Alger
himself. The earliest letters we
have are from 1900, and date
from when the company’s headquarters was in Hammac and the sawmill was in Foshee. From what I gather, the two settlements were hardly distinguishable from one another, somewhat like Century and Flomaton or Brewton and East Brewton. They were both primarily mill towns and maybe as much as a mile apart. Of course, the residents probably knew exactly where the line was.
Sullivan, of Alger-Sullivan, had been speculating in timber and lumber for nearly two decades when he and Alger collaborated to form the ASLC, had operated a sawmill at Wallace for some time. He was increasing his holdings in Escambia County and other timberlands in south Alabama. The Foshee sawmill was started in the1880s by J.H. Fuller and in later years was sold to Sullivan.
As seen in previous columns, a man’s life in the small towns of this area was rough and often dangerous. If you weren’t maimed or killed doing your work in a sawmill or logging, then it might be possible you’d be killed by some rowdy ne’er-do-well. Or, for that matter, an upstanding citizen might own the bullet that did you in. Sullivan himself killed a man in Pensacola while a member of a posse that laid plans to kidnap John Wesley Hardin. When they stormed the railroad car Hardin was in, probably with guns drawn, one frightened young man got up and jumped out of a window. Sullivan, thinking it was Hardin trying to escape, shot and killed him by mistake.
Edward Hauss wrote in a couple of his letters of "trouble" in the town, meaning shootings. I’ve often wondered what that stoic businessman from the big city thought in dealing with some of the lawlessness that may have existed in the backwoods of the South. His remarks gave the impression, however, not of frustration on his part, but of sadness for the gravity of the situations where men couldn’t get along peacefully.
In 1907 James R. Stewart worked at the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company mill as superintendent, which meant part of his job was to keep the men straight and the mill running smoothly. These were not easy tasks to do at the same time. The story is that his judgment leaned toward making sure the mill ran smoothly: Two black men, both employees, had apparently murdered a woman named Jane Starr. One of the men, John Shaw, was a good worker while the other, George Gainer, wouldn’t work for love nor money. Mind you, they both seemed to be equally culpable in the slaying of Starr.
They were brought before a court and tried. Gainer was convicted and went to a chain gang and Shaw was set free and went back to work the next day. So goes Stewart’s justice.
Stewart himself engaged in a shooting, which was proclaimed to be justifiable homicide. There were at least two reports of the shooting, supposedly by eyewitnesses. Stewart had an argument with a fella named Pierce Travis. Travis, related to the Alamo fighter William B. Travis, incidentally, was a man well-liked by most folks. He was, however, fearless, and according to all accounts was obnoxious and wild when he started drinking.
With the hard work and rough living conditions, many of the Sawmillers and loggers would sow wild oats Saturday nights and Travis was no exception. Since Stewart was from the north and Travis a true Southern rebel, there was bound to be conflict sooner or later.
One story goes that the two men, after threatening one another, met and each tried to face down the other. After arguing to a draw, Stewart purportedly ambushed Travis later and shot him in the back. The other version was they met face-to-face and in the ensuing shootout, Stewart killed Travis in a fair fight (by gunslinger standards). Later investigation showed that Travis’ gun had not even been fired and Stewart’s bullets went into Travis’ body from the back.
Stewart turned himself in and in a hearing later, was set free and as stated above, the killing was ruled a justifiable homicide. So much for South Alabama backwoods frontier justice?
Some of the above material is taken from the book, "History of Escambia County Alabama," by Annie C. Waters. It’s available for sale at the ASHS and at the Escambia County Historical Society. We quote Mrs. Waters’ book here: "
Foshee produced some notable men, as well as those of lesser character. The famous Walter Edward Morris of baseball fame, who played as a pitcher for Chicago in 1922 and for Boston from 1928-1931, was born in Foshee in 1899. He died in 1940 and had served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve."
Start marking those calendars for August 15, when Henry Plant comes to town. I hope to give you a full description of what Henry Plant means to this area in a couple of weeks. You really should see this presentation of how the tourist industry began in Florida with railroads and hotels in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For more information or for tour appointments, call 850-256-2029, 850-256-2661, or 850-256-3980. If you plan to drop in, call the Leach House Museum at 850-256-2447 first to make sure someone is there.